Intersectional Politics and Progressive Solidarity

People's climate march, Washington DC
People’s climate march, Washington DC, April 2017

In left-progressive circles the term “intersectionality” has gained a certain currency. To be sure, it is an awkward term that sounds like academic jargon. But it is an important concept because it explains some of the various ways injustice and discrimination work as well as the opposition to injustice. The classic case is of black women workers who face both race and gender discrimination. Race and gender “intersect” to put them in a double bind. And if we add class to the mix, the forces of discrimination and repression only multiply.

Resisting such discrimination and power imbalances could go in two directions. In one, power relations and identities could isolate these women from potential allies such as African American men, non-black women, and other working-class people. The other direction is where broader power imbalances that victimize ethnic minorities, women, and laborers expand the potential for solidarity among them. This second scenario suggests the potential to build alliances across race, class, and other identity lines, a potential, it so happens, that is already being activated.

L.A. Kauffman’s Direct Action surveys progressive movements and actions from the Vietnam war to Black Lives Matter. One of the most striking themes in the book is the difficulty progressive movements had throughout much of that period in working with each other. Splits along lines of class and race and various issue-centered campaigns meant that organizations often worked independently or even in competition with each other. But in recent times, differences among race, gender, and issue-based groups appear to have dissolved to a significant extent.

How this happened is not absolutely clear, but two new factors help explain the process. First, the emergence of new organizations, composed of younger people who grew up in more diverse communities and/or went to more diverse colleges and universities than their parents has promoted a solidarity among groups and a common progressive outlook on the major political issues of the 21st century. In other words, instead of either race or class (or gender) as orientations that gave rise to competition and conflict among progressive movements, nowadays these movements are all about race and class and gender (and the environment and living wages, etc.)

This is not to argue that the tension between race and class has faded away. We only need look at the conflicts within the democratic party about supporting minorities versus helping the white working class. But the environment has changed to the extent that these tensions are susceptible to solution with the right kind of politics.

Beyond the emergence of a new generation, progressives of all concerns have come to see a common problem that subsumes all of their specific issues. That problem is often labelled as “neo-liberalism,” although others would just call it corporate capitalism: a political economy that operates on the basis of market fundamentalism and is dominated by corporations, Wall Street banks, rich capitalists, and their political allies in the US government.

Thus, whether one is talking about our criminal justice system, environmental degradation and climate change, the decline of manufacturing and the middle class, our huge military industrial complex, the attack on civil liberties and voting rights, or any of the other problems we face as a society, all are caused or propped up by the neo-liberal system that dominates our society and much of the globe. The dilemma for progressives is that this system has many interlocking economic and political supports. Overturning something so big and powerful requires the kind of major transformation that the US has rarely if ever experienced.

But the all-encompassing nature of the system is also its political weakness. Each of the various issue-oriented movements can confront the system in its own way, recognizing that they have allies working for complementary aims. We could call this common struggle “expanded intersectionality” or, more simply: “intersectional politics.”  All or nearly all progressive concerns are aligned in their critique of the system. As a result, their collective ability to act together is much greater than social movements of the past. If there is an environment march or rally, Black Lives Matter and native American individuals and groups are likely to show up as are feminists and LGBT groups. We very well may be living through a golden age of synergy among progressive groups.

Strictly speaking, the above analysis goes beyond what is normally conceived of as “intersectionality.” (See this article as a short primer). Moreover, I do not want to hijack a concept that is used in a very specific manner. But I do want to argue that the concept can be applied in a more general way. Whether we call it “expanded intersectionality” or “intersectional politics,” or “multi-sector politics” doesn’t matter. What matters is that the potential for solidarity across and among progressive organizations is growing and is already being realized on the streets.Of course, we must not minimize the efforts needed to work across racial, class, and gender lines. But it is clear that these challenges are being dealt with more effectively than in the past.

The implications are potentially profound. No doubt, the splits among democratic party constituencies have not been resolved and possibly have been aggravated by the 2016 elections in which the democrats saw a further attenuation of support from white workers and the economically depressed communities where they live. At the same time, there has been more public attention paid to the widening cultural gulf between rural and urban Americans as seen in this recent survey and analysis by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation.

The assumption of much of the political analysis on this apparent split is that democrats are facing the dilemma of supporting either the white working class or minority, mostly urban, constituencies, including African Americans, Latinos, women, and LGBT people, who may be fast-food, retail workers, office administrative, or public service workers (among others). The simple question, to put it baldly, is: should democrats support working class whites in rural communities and blue collar towns in the Midwest or working class minorities in large cities?

The question itself, however, plays directly into conservative attempts to split working classes by emphasizing racial and other supposed cultural differences and fear of the “other.” Yes, there are definitely increased differences between rural whites and urbanites of all ethnicities, but there are also issues that unite them such as living wages, healthcare, and education. A broad and inclusive progressive agenda that supports all working people, no matter where they live and no matter what their ethnic and gender identities are, has a much better chance at this moment than it has had in some time, if ever. So here’s the real question: Can progressive activists and politicians seize the moment to formulate such an agenda and empower working people, whatever their identity or wherever they live?

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